Tom Morello, 31: a leftist radical with a seven-digit savings balance. A Harvard graduate (1986, with honors) who plays guitar for a platinum-selling band with hit songs that advocate class warfare. A reformed metalhead who was born in Harlem. A public supporter of both Amnesty International and the Shining Path, a group of Peruvian Marxist guerrillas notorious for its human-rights violations.
A musician, and man, of intriguing contradictions--and heavily armored convictions.
It's in his blood. Morello's father was Kenya's first ambassador to the United Nations. Before that, he was a member of the Mau Mau uprising that put a bloody end to British colonial rule in the east African country. Morello's parents divorced when he was 1, and his mother, a white schoolteacher, took him with her to Libertyville, a small town outside Chicago (Mary Morello has since founded Parents for Rock and Rap, an anticensorship counterweight to Tipper Gore's PMRC).
After he left the Ivy League, Tom Morello moved to Southern California, where he took a day job in the office of former senator Alan Cranston (later censured as a member of the Keating Five) and started working his way into the SoCal music scene. Five years later, Rage Against the Machine played its first gig at a house party in Orange County.
Basically, the band grafted the Black Sabbath sensibilities Morello picked up as a teenager in the Illinois suburbs onto the hybrid sound of hard-core/hip-hop then just coming into vogue in Southern California. Seething over that surface, vocalist Zack de la Rocha chanted and howled radical leftist protest raps.
Rage caught rep fast, and despite the band's railings against corporate America--or perhaps precisely because of them--Epic Records signed the band and released its self-titled debut in 1992. Rage Against the Machine went platinum in America, Canada, France and the U.K., and gold in several other countries.
And then the waiting began. Four years would pass before the group released a second album. During that period, de la Rocha dropped out of sight several times to visit the Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico. In 1995, Epic rented the group a house in Atlanta, where the members holed up to try to write a new album. It didn't work--personal and creative conflicts pushed the band to the verge of self-destruction.
By all appearances, however, the band is now back on track, with a highly successful sophomore recording (Evil Empire), an appearance at the high-profile Free Tibet concert in San Francisco last month, and reportedly one of the hottest road shows of the season, now on tour with Girls Against Boys.
New Times recently contacted Morello in Los Angeles, where he had a few days to burn between Rage Against the Machine's headline spot at the Redding Festival in England and the start of its U.S. tour.
We were supposed to have 45 minutes with Mr. Morello. His publicist gave us 20.
New Times: There have been several Tom Morello sightings on Mill Avenue. What's up with that?
Tom Morello: Well, my girlfriend's from Tempe, so we go out there and stay with her mom every once in a while. And I like to walk Mill, see what all the kids are up to, get something to drink, go to the bookstore. The usual Mill stuff. The last time we were there was not too long ago, I think in mid-August.
NT: Did you check out any local bands?
TM: Yeah, as a matter of fact, we went to see this band called One. They were good . . . real smooth but lively.
NT: So far, Rage has been an election-year band for releasing albums [Rage Against the Machine in 1992 and Evil Empire this year]. Any chance a third record will come out before the year 2000?
TM: I really don't know.
NT: That's it?
TM: That's all that's safe to say. I offer no guarantees. Right now we're literally taking it one show at a time.
NT: Okay. Obvious question--who are you going to vote for in November?
TM: I may just not vote, period. Half of the potential electorate in this country didn't turn out for the last presidential election, and I think that's because they rightly realize it really doesn't matter who you vote for--you're just voting for one puppet or the other. The actual puppet masters are beyond the control of the electorate.
NT: Where are they?
TM: They're in the shadows, where the ultrawealthy white men hang out and laugh a lot.
NT: At what?
TM: Consumerism, to start with. That's their best trick--selling the illusion of wealth to the poor, and the illusion of power to the oppressed. That new television set does not represent wealth or freedom from oppression, you know what I'm saying? Turn off the TV and let's talk about wage slavery. Let's talk about why most people in this society have to rent their lives to live. Let's talk about modern serfdom and how it keeps the people in check, because most of them are so consumed with the worries and pressures of day-to-day life, they don't have time to educate themselves, or to really think hard about the system they're a part of and how much it actually controls them.
NT: Fine. But there are a lot of places where "the people" are far worse off.
TM: Fundamentally, though, there's only one place, and only one people, right? Look at it this way--is the standard of living higher in America than Indonesia? Obviously. But people need to ask themselves, "Am I okay with the fact that to maintain my lifestyle, there is an Indonesian who has to work in a sweatshop making 80 cents a day?"
NT: So do your politics come before your music?
TM: I really don't see a separation, because as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as apolitical rock. Those bands that are out there singing about nothing but cars and chicks, they're doing the system a service. They're helping it anesthetize the minds of young people, and I'd call that an extremely political act, even if it is unwitting.
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NT: What's the biggest misconception about Rage Against the Machine? (An Epic Records publicist breaks in. "Last question.")
TM: That we're hypocrites. I find it funny that the thing we're criticized most for is what we're the most sure of--our politics. We really are not about the money. People ask us, "How do you keep your ticket prices down?" It's easy--you just charge less. And we give a lot to anticensorship groups--Refuse & Resist, the Leonard Peltier defense fund, to various environmental groups, to the Zapatista rebels in Mexico. Zack [Rage singer de la Rocha] has been down to visit the Zapatistas four times.
We push our agenda with every song, every tee shirt, every interview. We're the Trojan horse. The entertainment industry is in the palm of some very corporate hands, and it's extremely difficult for radical or revolutionary artists in this country to get their message to a mass audience. We have that opportunity for one reason and one reason only--we move millions of units.
Rage Against the Machine is scheduled to perform on Thursday, October 10, at Compton Terrace in Chandler (relocated). Showtime is 6:30 p.m.